A related idea (from 19th c. composers, but often contested) considers 'Absolute' as a form of divinity itself which could be evoked by music.
The aesthetic ideas underlying the absolute music debate relate to Kant's aesthetic disinterestedness from his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, and has led to numerous arguments among musicians, music historians and critics, including a famous war of words between greatest composers such as Brahms and Wagner.
A group of early Romantics comprising of Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Jean Paul Richter and E.T.A. Hoffmann gave rise to the idea of what can be labeled as spiritual absolutism. In this respect, instrumental music transcends other arts and languages to become the discourse of a ‘higher realm’ — propagated greatly in Hoffmann’s famous review of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, published in 1810. These protagonists believed that music could be more emotionally powerful and stimulating without words. According to Richter, music would eventually ‘outlast’ the word.
As most religions prepare mankind for a Heaven or after-life of some description, instrumental music — according to the early Romantics — alludes to a similar state of spirituality, often referred to as ‘Utopia’.
‘Formalism’ is the concept of ‘music for music’s sake’ and refers only to instrumental music without words. In this respect, music has no meaning at all and is enjoyed by appreciation of its ‘formal’ structure and technical construction. The 19th century music critic Eduard Hanslick argued that music could be enjoyed as pure sound and form, that it needed no connotation of extra-musical elements to warrant its existence. In fact, these extra-musical ideas detracted from the beauty of the music. The 'Absolute', in this case, is the ‘purity’ of the art.
Formalism therefore rejected genres such as opera, song and tone poems as they conveyed explicit meanings or programmatic imagery. Symphonic forms were considered more aesthetically pure. (The choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as well as the programmatic Sixth Symphony, became problematic to formalist critics who had championed the composer as a pioneer of the ‘Absolute’, especially with the late quartets).
Carl Dahlhaus describes absolute music as music without a "concept, object, and purpose".
The majority of opposition to the idea of instrumental music being ‘absolute’ came from Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. It seemed ludicrous to these men that art could exist without meaning, for then it had no right to exist.
Today, the debate continues over whether music has meaning or not. However, most contemporary views, reflecting ideas emerging from views of subjectivity in linguistic meaning arising in Cognitive Linguistics, as well as Kuhn's work on cultural biases in science and other ideas on meaning and aesthetics (e.g. Wittgenstein) on cultural constructions in thought and language), appear to be moving towards a consensus that music provides at least some signification or meaning, in terms of which it is understood. The decay of spiritualism in the 21st century has also led to a weakening of the absolutist position.
Some scholars such as Berthold Hoeckner feel that the very idea of absolute music was culturally generated; it was fostered by some German composers in an attempt to make it universally accepted.
The cultural bases of musical understanding have been highlighted in Philip Bohlman's work, who considers music as a form of cultural communication:
Susan McClary has critiqued the notion of ‘absolute music’, arguing that all music, whether explicitly programmatic or not, contains implicit programs that reflect the tastes, politics, aesthetic philosophies and social attitudes of the composer and their historical situation. Such scholars would argue that classical music is rarely about ‘nothing’, but reflects aesthetic tastes that are themselves influenced by culture, politics and philosophy. Composers are often bound up in a web of tradition and influence, in which they strive to consciously situate themselves in relation to other composers and styles. Lawrence Kramer, on the other hand, believes music has no means to reserve a “specific layer or pocket for meaning. Once it has been brought into sustainable connection with a structure of prejudgment, music simply becomes meaningful.”
Music which appears to demand an interpretation, but is abstract enough to warrant objectivity (e.g. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony), is what Lydia Goehr refers to as ‘double-sided autonomy.’ This happens when the formalist properties of music became attractive to composers because, having ‘no meaning to speak of’, music could be used to envision an alternative cultural and/or political order, while escaping the scrutiny of the censor (particularly common in Shostakovich, most notably the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies).
On the topic of musical meaning, Wittgenstein, at several points in his late diary Culture and Value, ascribes meaning to music, for instance, that in the finale, a conclusion is being ‘drawn’, e.g.:
Recently, Jerrold Levinson has drawn extensively on Wittgenstein to comment, in the Journal of Music and Meaning: